Here we go again, finishing off our season predictions (knowing full and darn well that preseason picks are fanatic and not fact) with our PAC-12 and SEC picks, a few other schools to keep an eye on, and finally how we see the College Football Playoff picture shaping up. We’ll come back to our picks at the end of the season and see if we, at least, are able to convince ourselves that preseason predictions have some merit other than sheer, unadulterated excitement that football season is finally back.
And it is finally back. We don’t know about you, but we absolutely stayed up to watch Cal and Hawaii kick off the season in Australia. Have to say: Aussie football appears to have a bright future. The seats were filled, the crowd was enthusiastic, and everyone had a lot of fun. Well, except for Hawaii, who lost 51-31. We certainly enjoyed ourselves, as we had picked Cal to run away with it and that, friends, is fact.
The Pac-12 is still smarting that last year’s champion Stanford was excluded from the Final Four. That being said, if the Cardinals hadn’t inexplicably lost to Northwestern in the very first game of the season, they, instead of a clearly not-ready-for-prime-time Michigan State, might have been represented in the CFP.
This year, the conference title is clearly up for grabs. While there are several teams with the talent to go all the way, each school has major questions that need to be answered. We thought about drawing straws, but instead took a more analytical approach.
- Stanford: With a proven QB, this wouldn’t even be a question with RB Christian McCaffrey returning and a killer secondary.
- Oregon: We think Brady Hoke gives the Ducks the defensive mindset necessary to go after the Cardinals.
- Washington: We just can’t buy into the Huskies hype. Love QB Jake Browning and the secondary, but both lines are suspect.
- Washington State: The annual winner of the coolest fans in the world Gameday flag contest has a fun offense, but the defense hasn’t shown up yet.
- Cal: We thought last week that defense was Cal’s biggest problem. What we saw in the game Down Under proved we were right.
- Oregon State: This rebuilding job is going to take years, not months.
- UCLA: We’ll know more after a tough opener against Texas A&M, but the Bruins may be the team to beat.
- Utah: The Utes are going to surprise a few people this year, but probably not Josh Rosen and UCLA.
- USC: Coming off a year of turmoil is never easy, especially when you’ve got a new QB and Alabama is the first game on your schedule.
- Arizona State: We have a feeling this rebuilding job is moving along a little faster than the other two.
- Arizona: Tough schedule breaks the Sun Devils’ back early.
- Colorado: There’s always the Denver Broncos to love, but they don’t have much offense either. Recruit linemen, Colorado. Really. It’s a good idea.
Season Breakdown: One of these teams is really going to have to step up if the PAC-12 is going to get back to the CFP. But all of them have question marks, and the biggest is: Who can survive a topsy-turvy conference? We have UCLA-Stanford in the championship game, mostly because they’re the logical candidates. The only way Rosen and the Bruins can take out Stanford is if the hitherto AWOL receiver corps decides to show up this year. Because if they don’t, McCaffrey will run away with the title. Keep an eye on: Oregon. If the Ducks find a defense, not only the PAC-12 but the rest of the country better watch out.
This is our conference of expertise, and we’re going to need every shred of it to figure this one out. For this season, all habits are going to change. Conventional wisdom has established over the past decade that the SEC West is the toughest division in DI football, while the East has been in decline. But everything in college athletics is cyclical, and this is the year things start to shift. As parity oozes across the West, traditional football powerhouses are in the ascendant in the East. In a league where QB play is key, only two solid quarterbacks return in 2016. But the plethora of will-be-playing-on-Sunday running backs is out of this world.
- Alabama: We didn’t want to go with Alabama. They’re replacing their QB and two-deep at RB. But the defense is brutal. And their consistency season to season is hard to ignore.
- LSU: They have a QB, great WRs, and maybe the best player in the country in Leonard Fournette. But without a passing game, Fournette is stifled. If Harris is only a game manager this season, LSU manages to fail.
- Texas A&M: If the Aggies don’t knock off the big dogs on their schedule, they may plummet faster than Ryan Lochte’s popularity. Trevor Knight is the key. He has to perform against the best defenses in the country.
- Arkansas: We want to be high on the Hogs, but we need to see if little brother Brandon Allen steps into big bro Austin’s shoes – and if coach Bret Bielema can remember to coach all the games and not ignore what should be relatively easy wins.
- Ole Miss: Chip Kelly returns as probably the top QB in the SEC, but Hugh Freeze’s program is quickly turning into a dumpster fire. If Ole Miss can stay focused, they might have a good season. We’re betting they don’t.
- Mississippi State: A definite rebuilding year in Starkville now that Dak Prescott is running the Dallas Cowboys. This season might need some Mullen magic.
- Auburn: Kirk Herbstreit named the Tigers as his sleeper team. We don’t think they’ll wake up, especially after meeting Clemson in the first game of the season. Ouch.
- Tennessee: This is the year we find out if Butch Jones’s “brick by brick” philosophy has erected a mirage or a juggernaut. With a one-two RB punch in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, a vicious D, the top returning special teams unit, and perhaps the best QB football mind in the country in Josh Dobbs, the sleeping giant will awaken: and he’s pissed.
- Florida: Great defense and one of the most creative coaches in the nation with Jim McElwain, but a mediocre offense under the well-traveled Luke Del Rio will lead to ending both the streak over the Vols and SEC title hopes.
- Georgia: New HC Kirby Smart has a choice: Play the experienced QB Grayson Lambert for a safe run at the East, or let freshman sensation Jacob Eason take the reins. We think it’ll be Eason, and with those reins come a few lumps. The Georgia run game behind Nick Chubb keeps them competitive, but it’s not enough.
- Vanderbilt: Derek Mason has quietly built an outstanding defense in Nashville, but the only offense is the stellar RB Ralph Webb. But get ready, Commodores: We see you bowling in early December.
- Kentucky: Mark Stoops has been making inroads recruiting in Ohio, but the Wildcats can’t yet stand against their conference foes.
- Missouri: We really like new head coach Barry Odom, who gives the program a lot of stability. But there are big holes yet to fill on the roster.
- South Carolina: Will Muschamp will get his team to games. Whether he gets them into the games is another story. The OBC left him a big old hot mess in Columbia. Thanks, Steve.
Season Breakdown: The annual carnivore-fest of the South will be particularly vicious this year, but the pendulum is starting to swing back toward the East from the West. We see two 11-1 teams in the title game: Alabama, with a lone loss to LSU, and Tennessee, with its loss to Alabama in Neyland on the Third Saturday In October. But this year, the Vols break both their losing streaks to rivals. They beat Florida in Neyland and finish by ambushing the Tide in Atlanta for the SEC Championship. Keep an eye on: LSU. If Brandon Harris finally emerges as the QB he has the ability to be, nothing can stop the Tigers from going to Tampa.
Other Teams of Note
Notre Dame: We’re not sure what’s going on in South Bend, but apparently it hasn’t been player education. The Irish had six players arrested in one night last week, which doesn’t speak well for discipline. And with a schedule packed with marquee opponents (Texas, Michigan State, Stanford, USC, Miami, and Virginia Tech) there’s no room for error. That being said, we see the Irish with two losses, ending the season on the fringe of the top 10 and in a prominent bowl game – if Coach Brian Kelly can get his players under control. Otherwise, Notre Dame will disintegrate faster than a lump of sugar in an Irish coffee.
Houston: We like Houston. We like Houston a lot. After they demolished Florida State in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl, the Cougars are poised to make a run. Their first game will set the tone for their season. If Tom Herman can lead his team past the mighty Sooners of Oklahoma, Houston can do what Boise State was (unfairly) prevented from doing: lay claim to a shot at a national championship. IF.
We like their chances. If they beat Oklahoma, they go undefeated. IF.
College Football Playoffs
Here we go: the big enchilada. What four teams get their shot at the national championship? Honestly, we could create endless scenarios that would be equally plausible. But here’s what we see.
First off, we unequivocally and categorically dislike the idea of two teams from not only the same conference but the same division within that conference getting into the playoffs. So sorry, Alabama-LSU, Florida State-Clemson, and Ohio State-Michigan proponents, but it’s not going to happen. And if it does, our next column after the announcement of such a travesty will be vicious. That being said:
Florida State, Stanford, Oklahoma, and Tennessee make the playoffs.
Are we picking a national champion? Nope. That’s a column for December and that’s fact.
Our regular column returns on Thursday, when another Fact or Fanatic question is examined and we’ll make picks for the best opening weekend in NCAA history. Currently for the season, we are 1-0 on our picks.
Probably the best our record will be all year, too.